#neverforget My 9-11 Story

This post was originally written on my personal blog in 2003.  It has been revised and reposted each year since then.  

It still seems like just yesterday.

I had moved into my dorm at Douglass College just days earlier. As I sat in the dining hall on that beautiful morning with my best friend Erin chatting about our schedules, I remember hearing the morning radio show talking about the Twin Towers. I also remember Erin and I wondering aloud why talk radio was being broadcast in the dining hall and why were the hosts talking about something that had happened in 1993? We tuned it out; it became nothing more than white noise in the background. We were college students and it didn’t seem important. We finished breakfast and headed off to class.

I went to my Women and Public Policy class; it was a class of about 50-60 students and I think I was the only freshman. As my classmates settled into seats in the small lecture hall, our professor, Jen, apologized as she placed her cell phone on the podium. She explained that she had to keep it turned on because she a had a flight out of Newark later that day and she needed to keep up on any delays due to the incident in the city.

That was the first that I heard about a plane crash.

This was college in 2001.  I had a TV in my room but it wasn’t hooked up yet. We had the internet but it was hardwired and most of my time was spent on AIM, not looking at news sites. I had a cell phone but it definitely wasn’t smart.  In class, I had a notebook and pen, so there was no way to seek out any more information than what the instructor shared with us. I hadn’t heard about a plane crash, but everyone in class seemed fairly calm. We talked about what had happened for a few minutes and most of us assumed it was just an errant pilot; a tragedy, but nothing too life-changing for the majority of us. There were no details available.  So from 9:50-10:30am we continued on with our normal class schedule, discussing women in the current political system. I packed up my bag at the end of class and followed a group of students out of the building. I remember walking back to the dorm, over the Hickman Bridge, listening to people around me say they heard that classes were canceled for the rest of the day. It seemed strange, but I figured I would get details when I made it back to my room.

As I walked into my building, I could sense the panic. The stress and tension in the air hit me like a slap in the face. Girls were walking around crying.  A group was huddled around the one television in the back lounge.   I walked up the three flights of stairs to my room and immediately saw that my answering machine was blinking wildly. Each message was from my mother, trying to get in touch with me. I grabbed my cell phone, which had been turned off in class, but the call would not go through.  “All circuits are busy” was the only response I got when I dialed.  Cell phone lines were jammed.

As I kept hitting the redial button, I watched my floormates pace up and down the hall. One of the girls walked past my door no less than twenty times in 2 minutes. She was trying to get in touch with her father who worked in the Twin Towers. Others were just trying to find their parents, even if they didn’t work in the city. We all just needed the reassurance of talking to family.

Unable to get through to anyone on the phone, I took my cell phone and walked back downstairs to the lounge where I sat on the couch with my dormmates, staring at the images that were being flashed on every station on our common room TV. No one spoke. We’d only met a few days earlier and suddenly the scariest event of our lives was occurring in the city we thought of as our own.  The city.

After a few minutes, I couldn’t watch the news anymore. The news anchors were so unsure and so frightened; they kept showing the same clips over and over and they didn’t have any answers.  I hoped I could find out more on the internet.

At 11:00am, I finally got through to my mother (while reloading news sites over and over) who she was relieved to hear from me. She told me you could see flames from the beach by our house and that there was a huge cloud of smoke and a smell enveloping Middletown. She asked if I wanted to come home, and while I considered it,  I chose to stay.  I wanted to be with my friends, and I admit that the idea of driving home was frightening.  None of us knew what was happening or what would happen in the next few hours.  It felt safer for us all to stay in one place.

It wasn’t easy, though. The panic in my dorm just increased all afternoon. My friends and I sat in stunned silence, alternating between watching the television coverage and reading each other updates from the internet. At one point, fighter jets flew over campus and people ran for the basement. No one knew what would happen next. Were we at war? That sense of terror was something unimaginable only hours before.

We watched the news for hours on end. I sent IMs and received IMs from friends who were at school in the city, in DC, and across the country. People I hadn’t talked to in months came to mind. I went to a tiny high school, only about 60 students in a graduating class, and our network of students was reaching out to one another. We just needed to know that everyone was all right. I remember the anxiety we all felt while we checked on all “our” Maryland people, friends who went to school near the Pentagon and Washington, DC. Eighteen years old and we were frantically searching for people just to make sure they were still there.

AOL Instant Messenger was our lifeline. Away messages served as life affirmers.  Emails were sent back and forth.

I will never forget signing on to our high school email network and reading the public announcements, a forum usually reserved for messages about upcoming school dances and PTA fundraisers.  The tragedy began to hit home as some of my peers posted messages asking for classmates to look for names on lists- parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins. As each new manifest was posted by the media it became more and more apparent that some of those who were missing would not be coming home that night.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to people you knew…

Later that day, my mother got through to me again, telling me that my brother’s best friend’s dad was missing. That’s when I made a decision. I went home.

I stayed home. School was cancelled for days. We weren’t sure when classes would start again.  Most of my floormates went home, too.  We didn’t know if we were at war, if terrorists would strike somewhere else in the coming days, if we were safe.  Suddenly college didn’t seem that important.

At home, my mother told me how on the morning of September 11th, ferries came from the city to our harbor. Ferries that were based all over NY just packed with passengers from NYC. People who just had to get somewhere besides Manhattan. Ferries would load up and sail to any dock available outside of Manhattan.  Passengers stumbled off the boats- people covered in ash, people in shock. They were hosed down immediately by men and women in hazmat suits, for fear that they were carrying biological agents.

Over the next few days, the newspapers talked about how my town, Middletown, was the town in NJ hit the hardest by the tragedy. We lost so many. So many people from my church, people I knew from middle school and high school. Parents, siblings, friends, colleagues all of them. We were a commuter town and every family was touched in some way. Today, Middletown is known as the place that lost the most residents on 9/11 after NYC.  There are memorials all over town.  There are scholarships and 5K races each year in memory of those who were lost.  It’s a constant part of so many lives.

We all grew up that day and our lives changed forever. Safety and security became the most important social and political issues.  9/11 effects us to this day; we take our shoes off at the airport, we arrive 3 hours early, and we still get a little too nervous when flying. But this isn’t new for my students. For them, it’s just the way it’s always been. September 11th is history to them, something they read about each year. For my entire teaching career, I’ve had to be careful of what I’ve said on 9/11 because there was always a student in the room whose life was touched by the tragedy.  But now?  My students were not born when the tragedy struck.  If their family lost a loved one, my student most likely never met them. My current freshmen were born in 2005.

That’s hard for me to comprehend because 9/11 is such a huge part of my life.  But for my students, it’s something their parents and other adults talk about.  The visual of a plane hitting the towers live on television isn’t part of their life; that’s something I can’t imagine.  But for my students today is September 11th “capital letter because it’s a month” not September 11th “a day that changed our lives forever so it has forever been ingrained in our minds”.

For me, it is hard to fathom not being able to articulate exactly where I was that day, that hour, that minute.  While I am glad they have no memory of the terror our nation, especially the tri-state area, experienced that day, it still leaves me stunned.  It’s such an integral part of my life that I can’t imagine it not being a cornerstone in others’ lives.  Yet I am grateful for that blessing, too.  September 11th will always be a day that stops me in my tracks, but I am glad that it’s history for my students. I  hope they never experience anything like we all did on that day. But I also hope that they never forget.

We will never forget.
God Bless all those lost on 9-11-01……

Slice of Life Day 31

Well this March certainly wasn’t like any March I’ve blogged about in the past.

This has been a very anxiety-ridden month. At the beginning of March my students were reading about Covid-19 in the newspaper (as they had been since December) and they had some class discussions about what would happen when it began to spread in the US. By the middle of the month the district had called a half-day Friday that turned into a day off for students so that teachers could meet to begin planning for possible remote schooling. That was a Friday. By the end of the weekend school was closed until March 27. A few days later that changed to “closed indefinitely”.

On March 12th my students walked out of school under the assumption that we might close for a week or two in the coming days. On March 13th I closed my classroom door unsure of when I would return. Now it seems like I probably won’t return this year. The school is frozen in time- classrooms decorated, books spilling out of lockers, plants growing towards the sunlight streaming through the windows. I can’t fathom that I likely won’t step back into my room this year. I can’t fathom that our seniors might have already walked the halls for the last time. I can’t fathom not ending the year with my seniors and my freshmen.

We are still working (and teaching from home is a million times harder than teaching in the classroom, which is already difficult!), but it’s not the same. Part of me is grieving this lost year, but I’m also trying embrace this opportunity to try something new. It’s hard, but. I’m trying.

The Slice of Life Challenge is always one of my favorite assignments during the school year, but this year it’s been especially valuable. I’ve gotten to see what life is like for my students as they quarantine and follow the stay-put order in NJ. It’s helped them connect with each other during this difficult time. I’m always grateful for what I learn about my students and our classroom community when they participate, but it’s been so much more meaningful this year.

Slice of Life Day 30

My writing today is on Medium.

Lessons in Letting Go and Stepping Into the Unknown of Remote Teaching

We are a few weeks into the great remote teaching experiment of 2020 in many parts of the country. How can we use this time to revitalize school?

Sarah GrossMar 30 · 5 min read

Norms are important to teachers. Let’s be honest- many of us are control freaks. It’s why we have trouble letting go of books, units, and projects we’ve developed. But we are living through unprecedented times, so in the words of Elsa, we need to “let it go”.

Read the rest here.

Slice of Life Day 29

Somehow the days are both too long and too short. Time is weird in quarantine.

Today was another rainy spring day. I spent the morning preparing the dogs’ frozen Kongs for the week and cleaning up. After that time got away from me. I don’t remember doing anything other than picking up bagels for the week (yay curbside pickup and yay for supporting small businesses!). Eventually we took the dogs for a muddy, soggy walk at the park. The rain has ensured a much less crowded park and that makes me happy. People have been great about practicing social distancing, but the park is usually empty when I go. That has not been the case since quarantine started.

Tomorrow we begin week 3 of remote learning. I feel like a first-year teacher all over again. I am very much looking forward to spring break so I can try to get back on my feet again. I have a lot to figure out as we move into the 4th marking period remotely.

Slice of Life Day 27

More walks today. After our evening walk (our third walk of the day) Dublin wanted to sit on the porch and wait for Chris and Navan to finish their run. So we did. It was 70° and the sun was still shining at 6:30pm.

I love hiking, but I think even the dogs are getting tired of walking so much. I know it’s a long way off, but I can’t wait to get back to normal. Here a list of things I miss (in no particular order):

  • Seeing my family
  • Going to the movies
  • Going to the theater
  • Dog classes
  • Book events
  • The mall
  • Target
  • Concerts
  • Going to work
  • Getting my house ckeaned
  • Eating out
  • Therapy dog viduts
  • My students
  • Nerdcampnj
  • Book clubs
  • My commute
  • Iced coffee with thin mint swirl
  • Frappuccinos
  • The beach
  • Running errands
  • Tutoring
  • Sports

What do you miss?

Slice of Life Day 26

Is it already Thursday night? I feel like I worked 14-hour days all week. 😬

Before the governor closed schools we were given a PD day to co-plan with colleagues. I left with two weeks of plans. Those plans ended today. I can not imagine how much more work I’ll do as I try to plan out the next few weeks (months?).

The hardest part is not knowing how long this will last. I’m assuming we won’t return this year, but I’d love to get confirmation on that. It wound make my plans a little easier. But who knows.

I did get outside for two walks today. Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain, so I’m going to bake some Irish soda bread muffins when school ends. I did our grocery shopping for the next three weeks today, so we are set. I can bake to my heart’s content!

Slice of Life Day 25

What TV shows are getting you through quarantine?

We cut the cord a little over two years ago and recently switched to YoutubeTV (after PlaystationVue shut down). One of the benefits of streaming cable is the cloud DVR that holds an endless number of episodes. I keep the TV on in the background while I work so the dogs don’t bark every time a leaf moves outside, so I’ve been taking full advantage of mindless TV.

My go-to background TV show is Friends. I’ve seen every episode hundreds of times since middle school, so it’s perfect for background noise. The same goes for Law and Order (the original series). Law and Order SVU tends to distract me more, so that’s what I watch when cooking dinner or cleaning. At this rate, I should be able to watch/rewatch every season of all three shows.

Slice of Life Day 24

What I’ve learned while being quarantined and practicing social distancing:

  • I need to get outside everyday. And not just in my yard. I’m grateful fir my dogs and local parks.
  • I am not someone who can work from home under normal circumstances. I’m making this work, but it’s not for me.
  • I don’t own enough lounge clothes.
  • Sometimes it’s good to put on jeans.
  • The days are fast and slow.
  • I’m not nearly as productive as I thought I’d be.
  • Teaching from home is a lot harder than teaching at school.
  • I miss my students.
  • Our students miss school.
  • I’m comfortable eating takeout and I feel strongly about supporting local small businesses.
  • I miss Friends on Netflix.
  • Law and Order makes great background white noise.
  • It’s hard to focus on reading.
  • It’s even harder to focus on writing.
  • Chris and I are good at managing two work from home schedule me and it’s great spending more time together.

Slice of Life Day 23

Week 2 of remote learning started today. The alFriday before we moved online we had time plan for two weeks of virtual learning. I realized today that I need to figure out what and how I’m teaching the the foreseeable future (likely the rest of the year).

The dogs seem to be getting used to having us home. Today it rained all day, so they didn’t get long walks like they did yesterday. Around 8pm Dublin reminded me that we usually take a 3-mile walk on Monday nights while Chris and Navan are at class. Of course there was no class tonight, but Dublin is a dog who likes to stick to a schedule. I squeezed in a quick walk before Chris and I settled in to watch some DVRed TV.

The days in quarantine are starting to blend together. I think today was day 9 or 10 for me. I’ll have to venture out for groceries later this week (we bought two weeks worth and need to restock), but otherwise all my time is spent working, reading, hiking, baking, or watching TV. #flattenthecurve

Slice of Life Day 22

Quarantine day something. I’ve lost track and we are only a few days into this.

Sunday is usually my tutoring and grocery shopping day, but it was a little different this week. I did work, but the tutoring center I work at ran an online info session that I was a part of. That took up a good portion of the morning, but I did sneak in two walks with the dogs.

No grocery shopping today, but we did pick up lunch from a local small business. (If you are local, Jersey Freeze is running specials and doing curbside pickup). I’m trying to help local businesses while maintaining social distancing as much as possible.

The other exciting part of my day was giving away books! I have hundreds of books thanks to being on awards committees and attending conferences. Most copies go to my students, but that’s not possible right now. So I posted in a few local Facebook groups that I was willing to leave bags of books on my porch for anyone interested.

Books on my porch

A bunch of people requested books! And more people contacted me tonight! I still have lots of books ready fo give away and I hope more people will get in touch. I may also stop at a few Little Free Libraries and add to their stock.

Other than that, my day was spent watching TV. Chris and I started Little Fires Everywhere and I watched The Greatest Showman 1.5 times. You do what you have to do in quarantine!